After quite a delay and a couple death threats from friends, I have some time sitting by Lady Bird Lake in Austin, TX to write about the past few days. My intention was to write about each day the same night as a journal to look back on, but it takes much longer than I anticipated. I found myself spending more time trying to portray my experience than actually living it so vowed to cut back on the frequency.
Picking up in Cedar Key, I wake and throw all my things into a laundry bag with backpack straps I found for $6 that's proven worth many times that. As I'm locking my door I meet Tony from across the hall. He stepped out for a morning cigarette with no shirt and shorts riding disturbingly low on his hips. Especially considering his apparent rush this morning forgoing underwear. Tony is in his 50s with white hair and deeply creased skin. He's originally from the midwest, but lives outside Ocala now and also rides. He's fascinated by my trip and wants the entire route. I happily go through each night but get less and less happy about the 60 lbs of gear on my back. He chimes in when he's ridden a location with tips and places to stop. He also suggests I do another ride up the east coast, paying particular attention to North Carolina. We talk for about 15 minutes when his girlfriend Cheryl joins us in the hall and the conversation starts over again. We walk down to continue the conversation as I load up the bike and the motel manager joins us in the street to admire the bike I've now admitted is a rental. They wish me luck, we exchange handshakes and hugs, and I hit the road just after 8 a.m.
I pick up Hwy 98 in Chiefland and follow it northwest through tree-lined state parks. Speed limits are 60 mph or slower which keeps the wind noise low and my body relatively cool under my riding gear. Which reminds me, in Daytona Beach I saw a guy riding a sports bike with only swimming trunks and flip flops. Don't get me wrong, it was miserably hot riding through stop and go traffic in the city, but I've never ridden without a helmet. My brain is pretty important to me and I'll take precautions to keep it in working order. I also wear a padded motorcycle jacket. It can get hot. Occasionally a majestic sweat waterfall will form down my back. It's not pleasant. But do you know what else isn't pleasant? Not having skin. I also wear riding gloves. I read you shouldn't skimp on motorcycle gloves because your hands are usually the first thing to hit the ground should you go down. Cheaper gloves don't have the aptly named palm sliders, which prevent the gloves from gripping the pavement. When that happens at speed, your body flips over your hands and snaps your wrists. It's not fun to think about this stuff, but it's important to understand the risks and prepare as best you can for them. On longer rides, I also wear riding pants that make me look like a real loser. But again, I'd rather be a loser with use of my knees and that skin stuff, again, pretty cool. So yeah, in 85-degree weather, 30-60 mph is delightful.
It's quicker to go further north and cut west just south of Tallahassee, but a friend sent me a wonderfully detailed email to stay on 98 as it touches Apalachicola National Forest and dips south along the Gulf. The ride is beautiful but sometimes pictures fail miserably to bring places to life. Images and memories of most of these roads will only exist in my well-protected head. I do take a picture of the world's smallest police station, though, because it's too stupid not to capture.
I stop in the town of Apalachicola for lunch and feel like laying on the counter in the air conditioned restaurant it feels so good. Eating big meals makes you sleepy so while I'm riding, I try to keep them light and relatively healthy. I had crab cakes the night before, but order a crab cake burger with bacon because what the hell is that? For both of these meals, I substitute the fries for potato salad. For both of these meals, I get fries anyways. I drink as much water as I can, finish all the fries I didn't order, whine as I slide on my scorching jacket I intelligently left in the direct sun, and get up to speed quickly. This Harley can haul ass.
Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. ―Howard Thurman
I miss my turn down Hwy 30-A along St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge. I have an earplug in one ear and music and Google Navigation in the other. It's working well until I realize when you drag and drop to change your route on a computer and then send those directions to your phone, those route changes are lost. I'd complain, but I'd literally be lost without Google Maps so this is a minor inconvenience I can likely find a way around for tomorrow's ride. I pass through Port St. Joe and Mexico Beach. Seemingly endless miles of breathtaking white sand beaches with homes overlooking them. Getting close to Panama City now, I pass through Tyndall Air Force Base and see what I think is a new F-35 doing maneuvers overhead. I don't know how to confirm if it is, but it's an awesome site nonetheless.
Panama City traffic isn't enjoyable, the sweat waterfall begins to trickle, and I've been riding quite a while without a break. I start looking forward to the motel I booked a few nights before. After about a half hour, I arrive and park in the hot sun, my only option. I immediately peel off my gloves, helmet, and jacket and check in. I'm given the remote control with my room key. Have previous remote controls gone missing, I wonder? My room is on the second floor and the door is already open, freshly cleaned. I shouldn't say "freshly", the smell of cigarettes is all I can make out, but the beds are made. I head to the bathroom, step onto the ceramic floor in my motorcycle boots and nearly flip over backward. The still damp floors were buffed with cooking oil, only explanation. I walk as if on thin ice back to the safety of the carpet and decide to bring up my gear. Heading back up the stairs, I see a lady basically blowing smoke into her child's face on the balcony, throw my stuff on one of the two beds, close the door behind me, crank the AC, and fall onto the neighboring bed, a small puff of dust rising around me. This'll do just fine.
Surprised to already be in Central Time, it's only 2 p.m. I lay in bed for about an hour building up strength, get changed, and walk the 30 minutes to the beach. My aunt and uncle come here regularly and sent me suggestions so I head to Pineapple Willy's. I order a Pineapple Willy, as one does, and then ask the bartender, "Do you have moonshine strawberries? My uncle told me he likes them and I should try them." The bartender grins and asks, "you mean a shot or to actually eat a strawberry?" When I say the latter, he says, "that's my favorite joke in this whole building right now, tell your uncle I say hi for me." I'm starting to get the impression they don't taste great. They look even worse. He pulls a couple out for me and I give them a try. You know when you eat something hot and you kind of keep your mouth open and breath out as you take bites to cool it down? That's how I'm eating this strawberry. The liquor taste is so intense it burns. But after the first one, boy does that second one taste, well, just as bad. But at least I knew what to expect this time. I thank the laughing bartender, pose for a picture from the witnesses at the bar, grab my Pineapple Willy, and start walking the beach.
Peak season apparently starts next weekend so it's not busy, but I can see the potential. I walk quite a ways, all the way to the boardwalk, watch the sunset, and get an Uber (Lyft was a 50-minute wait) to another recommendation. Danny picks me up and takes a wide turn out of the parking lot, crossing over to the other side of the road briefly. We start talking and I notice he's slurring his words. I don't smell booze (other than myself), maybe that's just how he talks, I reason. We have a good conversation, he's lived in PCB for ten years with his girlfriend and he relates my trip to his nephew who's in a band and travels across the country stopping wherever they can get a gig. Then he gets the hiccups. So now I'm riding through Panama City Beach with a drunk Uber driver. I casually ask to get out at the next light, it was a nice night and I'd walk from here. We thank each other and I walk the remaining half mile to Dat Cajun Place.
When the bartender asks what I'm in town for and hears about my trip, he says I'm living out his dream. We spend the next hour talking about prices, different bikes, and the company I used for my rental. I finish my delicious meal and so-so beer and head back to the motel. I'm meeting my friend Levi tomorrow and want to start early. I decide to walk back for fear of getting the same driver. I try to stop in a pool hall on the way but am chased out by thick clouds of smoke when I open the door to go inside. Instead, I go back to my dusty, smoke-smelling motel room and drift to sleep.